Richard Pryor's Daughter on Life with the Funny Man For Rain Pryor, being the daughter of comedian Richard Pryor, wasn't always one long laughfest. Her father's use of drugs and alcohol resulted in savage dark moods of anger and abuse directed toward his children and women. Rain Pryor has written about both the happy and difficult times in her relationship with her father in Jokes My Father Never Taught Me.

Richard Pryor's Daughter on Life with the Funny Man

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Imagine being a young child living in a big mansion with an incredibly successful celebrity father. The house is constantly filled with other stars, a mix of step-brothers and sisters. But there are also hangers-on, ex-wives, ex-girlfriends and prostitutes. Booze and drugs are readily available.

That was all part of the life that Rain Pryor led in the home of her father, comedian Richard Pryor. He died just over a year ago, after a long battle with multiple sclerosis.

Rain Pryor writes about her life in a new book, "Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love and Loss with Richard Pryor." She joins us from member station WYPR in Baltimore. Hello and welcome to the program.

Ms. RAIN PRYOR (Author, "Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love and Loss with Richard Pryor"): Thank you for having me.

YDSTIE: Did the time living with your father ever seem normal to you?

Ms. PRYOR: I think actually for most of my childhood, it seemed very normal. I thought everyone lived this way. It wasn't really until I got older, you know, and you function within other family systems that you realize, oh, the Pryors are definitely unique and different.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PRYOR: Not everyone, you know, has a madam for a great-grandmother.

YDSTIE: That's right. Your father grew up in a whorehouse, not to put too fine a point on it, I guess, in Peoria, Illinois.

Ms. PRYOR: Yes, he did.

YDSTIE: His mother...

Ms. PRYOR: His mother was a prostitute, and his grandmother, who ended up being the one to really raise him, was the madam, and...

YDSTIE: And she, it would've been your great-grandmother, was a big figure in your life and a big presence in the house.

Ms. PRYOR: Yes, huge. Absolutely, absolutely. She was very, you know, very strong-willed, had a lot of determination and sort of looked after my father and sort of guided him at times.

YDSTIE: Your father grew up in Peoria, moved to New York in the 1960s, and began performing as a comedian, sort of in the Bill Cosby mold.

Ms. PRYOR: Yeah.

YDSTIE: And then, in 1967, he decided to stop playing it safe and became edgier and more political, and you suggest in your book that your mother, Shelly Bonis(ph), played a role in that shift. Tell us about her and her role.

Ms. PRYOR: My mom was a dancer on contract with Columbia Studios, a go-go dancer, danced with "Shindig" and on various TV shows and in various movies and in nightclubs.

YDSTIE: And she was Jewish.

Ms. PRYOR: Yeah. She was Jewish, she was a go-go dancer who thought she was a black militant, just very politically aware. She was someone who accepted my dad for being who he was at the time and also knew that he had a bigger voice that needed to be heard.

And she sort of pushed him to be not to be afraid to use that voice, and I think really what it was about is just encouraging him and sort of standing beside, you know, the person that she was in love with and raise them up to their highest self. And I think she did that, in a way.

YDSTIE: Let's talk a little bit more about that relationship between your parents, Richard Pryor and your mother. There were fights and yelling, even when your mother was pregnant, and when you were born, you write the two of you came home from the hospital to find that you father was in bed with the housekeeper.

And yet your mother stayed with Richard Pryor, at least for a while. Why?

Ms. PRYOR: Well, yeah. I mean, if you ask any woman why they stay with - in an abusive relationship, I think her hope was that it was going to change and somehow it was going to get back to the great love affair that they had, the revolution that life was going to be different and great, and they were going to create this utopia together, and she wanted to stay and make that manifest.

She didn't want to fail at it. And eventually, I think, it got too painful for her and for him, and he finally left. I mean, that's what my dad did. He was like, you know, the traveling blues man laying down wherever he can in whatever town with whatever woman. I mean, he loved women. He had a sensational appetite for them.

YDSTIE: Then for a while you lived in L.A. with your mother's parents, Herb and Bunny Bonis.

Ms. PRYOR: Yeah, for a long time. I mean, they really were, I think, the sort of stabilizing influence in my life. My grandparents, you know, I look at them as well as - as my parents, not just my grandparents. I mean, I really think they gave me, you know, a sense of family and tradition even.

YDSTIE: You also learned some Jewish traditions from your grandparents.

Ms. PRYOR: Definitely, definitely. You know, lighting the Friday night (unintelligible) candles and Hanukah, but we, you know, I do Christmakah and you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

YDSTIE: Christmakah.

Ms. PRYOR: You know, go to temple for the high holidays, you know, and that kind of thing, and definitely keep it up, and yeah.

YDSTIE: You write about when you first met your father. You were four years old. You also met your half-sister, who you didn't know existed at that moment.

Ms. PRYOR: No.

YDSTIE: Like you, she was also biracial and Jewish.

Ms. PRYOR: Yeah.

YDSTIE: Can you describe that day and that meeting, what happened?

Ms. PRYOR: Here we are, driving up in the hills in Los Angeles and realizing my dad doesn't live that far away from where we did, and walk into this house with its African art and its, you know, and all of its glory of all the people. And there he was, you know, sort of keeping court.

And I looked at him, he looks me, and it was an immediate embrace. I looked like him, and he took me in and held me. And that just, in itself, I felt like I had arrived. I was home with this man, and not understanding too that what his absence meant; it wasn't clear to me in my life yet, so it was just, this was normal.

You know, and then, you know, there I am, a kid going swimming, and I get to meet, you know, other people that are part of this family. And you know, me and my sister remained, you know, off and on close throughout the years.

YDSTIE: She was close to your age, right? Her name is Elizabeth?

Ms. PRYOR: She's - yeah, Elizabeth Pryor, yeah. She's a couple of years older than I am.

YDSTIE: And how soon did you begin to live regularly at your father's?

Ms. PRYOR: You know, off and on. I'd spend, you know, most of my holidays with him or times off, you know, whatever, from school, whatever.

YDSTIE: And in his performances, Richard Pryor often talked about his children.

Ms. PRYOR: Yeah, definitely.

YDSTIE: Let's hear a little piece of one of those performances.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. RICHARD PRYOR (Comedian): I can't swim so, you know - my kids swim their ass off. We got a pool. I can't swim. I'm in the shallow part. I'll be pinchin' the bitch in the shallow part.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRYOR: What happened?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRYOR: Don't nobody push me, jack.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRYOR: One time, I was playing with my kids and forgot what I was doing, and (bleep) around and jumped off in the deep end. And that water will bring your memory back like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRYOR: I didn't even get a chance - and my kids was watching me, right? And my kids think everything I do is funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRYOR: Look at daddy drowning...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRYOR: Daddy, you're so funny. Kick your legs out, kick your legs. I'm going to kick your ass if you don't help me out.

YDSTIE: You can probably see that in your mind's eye as he says it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PRYOR: Definitely, definitely.

YDSTIE: Have you heard that bit lately?

Ms. PRYOR: Oh yeah. The same thing kind of happened in Hawaii. He went snorkeling and got carried out. And we're like, where's dad? Because we're all supposed to come back together, and we realized he was way out there in the water. And he's like, help, you know. We do, we laugh. We think everything he does is funny.

YDSTIE: But during one of those trips, he got angry and hit you. Tell us about that.

Ms. PRYOR: Yeah. Well, you know, my dad had a violent temper and, you know, drugs and alcohol and you put that all together, and here I was at the dinner table and I called - we had a chef cooking for us and brought out food. This was in Jamaica, and we couldn't pronounce her name, so she gave us a nickname to be able to call her, and I called her that, and my dad was unaware and went off the handle and just really popped me one across the face very violently.

And you know, at times that was the norm for him for a long time. My dad stopped actually hitting us and beating us when I turned 12 years old and my sister turned 14. He said I just can't do this anymore, because it was too painful for him. I think he realized his temper was so extreme and what he was capable of at times, because we witnessed not only with us, but we witnessed his violence towards women. And you know, that's really hard, to know that you dad did these things toward these women, and you had to sort of bear and watch and sort of keep that within you.

YDSTIE: In that very famous incident when your father caught on fire while freebasing cocaine, the public was told that it was an accident. But you write that that's not the case.

Ms. PRYOR: Yeah, that he was down and depressed. Momma had died, and that's when, you know, he sort of went down the road and decided, well, I think I should end my life and attempted what I call his revolutionary suicide attempt, which was the big joke that he made about, you know, the cocaine and the milk and cookies and setting himself on fire.

YDSTIE: What happened actually was that he doused himself with rum and lit a match, right?

Ms. PRYOR: Yeah, yeah. Lit the lighter, and his intention definitely was to die. And to realize sort of that he survived that...

YDSTIE: And went on to perform after that, right?

Ms. PRYOR: Yeah. That again is his tenacity and who he was as a person. You know, he took life experience and put it out there, and he sort of liked to expose it himself. You know, better than people talking behind your back was sort of like his theory. Let's just put it out there, and you know, let's all laugh about it and then move on.

YDSTIE: During his battle with multiple sclerosis, you occasionally visited your father.

Ms. PRYOR: Yes.

YDSTIE: And during one visit, he apologized to you for what he'd put you through.

Ms. PRYOR: Yeah.

YDSTIE: What was that like?

Ms. PRYOR: Well, it's amazing when you, you know, when you have someone who makes an amends for the pain that you've had in your life. It's a beautiful thing, and you know, it sort of gives you that confidence that it's okay and also gives you the knowledge maybe that you knew deep down inside but you just needed to hear a little extra about how they felt about you.

And it helped to really change and to heal very quickly any wounds that might have been there.

YDSTIE: Your father died just over a year ago, on December 10, 2005.

Ms. PRYOR: Yes.

YDSTIE: Since then, you've published this very frank account of your life and his. What do you think he'd say to you if he had read it?

Ms. PRYOR: I think he'd be really proud. You know, I think also he would've been shocked that I do love him so much. I really think he would've been like, wow, you know, it's beautiful. I can't believe it.

YDSTIE: Rain Pryor, her book, written with Cathy Crimmons, is "Jokes My Father Never Taught Me" from Regan Books. She joined us from member station WYPR in Baltimore. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms. PRYOR: Thank you for having me.

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